In a recent interview at the Best American Poetry blog, Luke Hankins, editor of Orison Books (and pal of Talking Book), discussed how he first discovered Herman Melville’s letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne and how the book The Divine Magnet came about:
Dante Di Stefano: Orison Books recently published The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville’s Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Mark Niemeyer, with a forward by Paul Harding. This book is a treasure. How did Orison Books come to publish it?
Luke Hankins: I was reading a wonderful book by the scholar Alfred Kazin, God and the American Writer. He has a chapter on Melville, and he quoted from some of the letters to Hawthorne. They were absolutely stunning—lyrical, humorous, passionate—and I had never even heard anyone mention them before. I started investigating the letters, and got a volume of Melville’s complete correspondence through interlibrary loan. It was readily apparent that Melville’s letters to Hawthorne were intimate and urgent in a way none of his other correspondence was. And I thought that if I—an English major and creative writing MFA graduate—had never heard of these letters, then surely neither had a large portion of the general literary public! Research revealed that no one had yet released an edition of these letters in particular, and that the volumes of Melville’s correspondence that had been published—all decades old—had been scholarly volumes aimed at a narrow swath of Americanists in the academy. I was thrilled at the idea of bringing out a volume of the letters to Hawthorne that would highlight the relationship between these two luminaries of American letters—a volume that, while suitable for the classroom, would also have a broad appeal for the general literary public.
I began searching for a Melville scholar who was interested in editing the volume, and was eventually referred to Mark Niemeyer, a Melville scholar who teaches American Literature at the Université de Bourgogne in France and who has edited and co-edited numerous volumes of Melville’s work both in the U.S. and in France. He was likewise enthusiastic about the project, and headed up getting permission to reprint the material from Northwestern University Press, ensured the accuracy of our text, provided footnotes, suggested and oversaw the supplementary Melville material included in the book, and wrote a superb introduction.
The final element we wanted to include in the volume was a foreword by a contemporary writer responding to Melville’s letters from a literary perspective. Our fiction editor, Karen Tucker, alerted me to an interview in which Paul Harding—a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—expressed his deep admiration for Melville. We contacted Harding through his agent, and he was excited by the project. He wrote an absolutely gorgeous foreword to the letters (which can be read online at the Tin House blog here).